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Assessor's office is slow to update value of donor's $21.5-million home

Jordan Kaplan, the owner of the Pacific Palisades mansion, has saved an estimated $198,000 since buying it in 2010. Kaplan, family members and co-workers contributed $30,000 to L.A. County Assessor John Noguez's campaign.

April 03, 2012|By Jack Dolan and Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
  • This Pacific Palisades home was purchased by Jordan Kaplan in 2010.
This Pacific Palisades home was purchased by Jordan Kaplan in 2010. (Christina House / For the…)

When prominent Los Angeles real estate executive Jordan Kaplan bought a Pacific Palisades mansion in 2010, he got seven bedrooms, 12 bathrooms and what a marketing website called acres of "park-like grounds."

What he did not get was the usual downside of such a purchase: a sky-high property tax bill.

That's because, nearly two years later, Los Angeles County Assessor John Noguez has not taken the typically routine step of replacing the previous assessed value of the property, $11.5 million, with the new $21.5-million sale price.

Because property taxes are calculated using the assessed value, the long delay has saved an estimated $198,000 for Kaplan, who along with his immediate family, co-workers and employees contributed $30,000 to Noguez's 2010 election campaign.

Noguez is at the center of an ongoing influence-peddling probe launched last year by the L.A. County district attorney. Investigators are looking into allegations that favors were done for another prominent campaign contributor, and into Noguez's relationship with a former employee in the assessor's Culver City office who has admitted to secretly and improperly lowering property values for 125 wealthy Westside owners.

George Renkei, Noguez's chief of staff, denied that the delay in reassessing Kaplan's home is a favor to a generous supporter.

Instead, he said, it's an example of an occasional "courtesy" provided to buyers when valuable, non-taxable items are included in the sale.

In this case, Renkei said, the holdup began after Kaplan's lawyer informed the assessor's office in late 2010 that the sale price included approximately $3 million in fine art and other valuables.

Kaplan bought the house, on Monaco Drive in Pacific Palisades, in August 2010 from Paramount Pictures Chairman Brad Grey.

A person with intimate knowledge of the sale, who spoke on the condition that his name would not be used, told The Times that Grey did not sell Kaplan any art.

"What is art? How do you define it?" responded Kaplan's attorney, Robert Slavin, adding that there were other things, including expensive furniture, a pond stocked with pricey Japanese koi and "movie industry" valuables he declined to describe further.

The person with knowledge of the sale said that Grey left no furniture and that the pond contained only bass and bluegill. Grey did leave Kaplan two film projectors worth perhaps $60,000, the person said.

Slavin declined to provide The Times with a copy of the purchase agreement, which would typically spell out everything included in the transfer. And he did not respond to further inquiries from the newspaper.

Emails obtained by The Times show that some employees of the assessor's office were expressing concerns last year about why it was taking so long to revalue Kaplan's home at the sale price.

On Sept. 22, 2011, Milan Garcia, a supervisor in Culver City, emailed Renkei, the assessor's aide, asking for permission to reassess the property. "You told me to hold off on it," he reminded Renkei, then asked, "Do we still want to wait or move ahead with the assessment?"

Nearly two months later, Garcia sent an email to Eric Haagenson, another of Noguez's top assistants in the downtown office. Again he noted the delay, explaining that Renkei "told me to put it on hold."

Haagenson responded: "Steady as she goes then — take all the time needed."

Renkei said he spoke briefly with Garcia last fall and expected the house to be valued shortly thereafter. "I certainly didn't expect it to take this long."

In February 2012, another supervisor in Culver City, Alexander Yotsov, expressed his frustration over the delay imposed by "the Executive Office." In an email to the appraiser assigned to Kaplan's case, he wrote, "Is the county in a position to loan money free of interest for over a year in this economic environment?"

After The Times began inquiring about the home last week, Renkei said the assessor's office would move to revalue it quickly. He said that, after 19 months, Kaplan still had not provided the county with the documentation necessary to prove there was more to the sale than just the house and land.

"A reasonable amount of time has been given to the buyer in this case," he said. The house "should be revalued soon."

If the fair market value of the house is determined to be higher than $11.5 million — a figure based on a 1997 appraisal — Kaplan will get a bill for the difference between the taxes on the old value and the new value for the time he has owned the house. He will not be charged interest.

Kaplan is chief executive of Douglas Emmett, a commercial real estate firm that owns 58 high-end office towers and luxury apartment complexes in California and Hawaii. The receptionist who answered his phone said Kaplan was on vacation and would not be available to comment.

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